Review for Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay

It's me again. I'm testing my hand at reviews, if you didn't notice. It helps me keep a written log of my thoughts on certain elements of published novels, so that I can track what I see, what I like, what I want to avoid in my own writing. I've been reading fantasy books for twenty years or more, and like everyone, there are things I like to read and things I don't. However, now that I'm also writing my own novels, I see the need for certain elements, for what they do to a plot. So come along with me, if you like, and see what I find interesting in these books I'm reading.

Okay. Tigana. Let me start with the end. No, not that end. The Afterword, after the end. In it, Kay states that he had several threads in his mind combine to create the seed for this story (I read the 10th anniversary edition of this book, btw--never did figure out the cover art). The thing was, a couple of those threads weren't completely woven through the tapestry of the novel--they lay on top, exposed, obvious, and it kept distracting me, pulling me out of the story, every time he drew attention to them. Arrrgh! I hate that: pet peeve. It's hard for fiction authors to work up a properly-screening agenda-hider sometimes, and it seems to me that Kay has fallen victim to that pitfall here. He has, again, a glorious culture. I nearly want to move there myself...okay, vacation. But there were so many speed bumps in the narrative that I kept losing my place in the fantasy world.

A glorious culture, indeed. Based on Italian Renaissance history, it depicts the pitfalls of a culture that is so divided within itself that one section will not rise to the aid of another against an outside foe, simply because they do not like them. And thus they are conquered. The book follows twenty years later, as a few rebel elements try to throw off the yokes of two warring (er, yelling-across-the-room-at-each-other) sorcerers and reclaim their homeland.

In one instance, however, reclaiming their homeland is more historical than literal. Tigana has been erased from the memories of everyone who did not live there, and they cannot hear nor understand the term. The name has been changed, and those who still live there are mistreated terribly by their ruler, Brandin. After all, the Prince of Tigana killed his son. No matter that it was during an invasion war. Brandin's rage and punishment will not be halted. The problem is that the magic he cast in order to wipe the memory of Tigana from the land means that he has to live in the area for 60 more years.

Okay, you had me 'til that point. I was with you. And then he has to hang around for 60 more years? Sure, he lives waaaaay longer than regular people. But Kay portrayed Brandin as sympathetic from the POV of Dianora, one of his concubines. I realize people are complex, and Brandin's POV was made clear on the issue of his son. I just couldn't buy it. I chalk it up to a lack of background on his relationship with his son. The kid dies before the Prologue, for sheep's sake. There's no mention of what he, a younger son, meant to Brandin, other than the usual king-to-younger-prince relationship. I believe the entire Palm was meant for the younger son to rule, so that his sons could control two empires for him. So yeah, a bit of bitterness there. But he never went home to his queen to make more kids. There was mention of her not liking him for leaving to conquer elsewhere, and at one point she and her lesbian poet lover plot to kill him (we'll get to the sex in this book in a minute), so that probably wasn't going to happen. But then, neither did he take a new wife, kill the old one, or in any other way move toward having more kids in his new land. Until near the end. Twenty years later.

I saw what this was early on, and it irritated me. It's a case of Bad Bad Guy. The other sorcerer, Alberico, had it too. They're the most powerful magic users in the land. They've split the peninsula, half to each of them, and reached a stalemate. Then, they did nothing for twenty years? No spy networks, no assassinations on each other, no police states? Nothing. Their stagnation, especially Alberico's, allows the rebels to make far-reaching networks and coordinate right under their noses. Manipulate them into doing what the rebels want them to. The sorcerers are like oxen, it seems. Huge and dangerous if you're underfoot, but also slow and easily prodded. This slowness, smugness, arrogance, was the device Kay used to make the book long enough so the rebels had time to scamper about and get ready. The sorcerers mostly sat there and stewed about their own problems, either in the Palm or back home in their own empires. It was quite boring.

Dianora started out as an interesting character: she came to kill Brandin in revenge for Tigana, but found herself helplessly in love with him. She had a plan of some sort to get to where he was, and miraculously got taken there before she could decide what she was doing. How conveeeenient. She never acts on her original rage and hatred, though she spends a lot of time waffling--not about killing him, but about killing herself. I must say, however, that the first time suicide is an option, it has huge political repercussions, and would, in my opinion, have been the best way for that character to go out. It wouldn't have been good for the plot, however, so she had to live. Unfortunately, it seems she's taken with a maudlin attitude from that point on, and sees herself as fated to die, useless. It's this sort of character that irritates me to no end: one who can't make up their mind whether to act, and by waffling, advances the plot to its end by characters who know when to act. Arrrrgh! She started off so excellent, and then degenerated into fluff, much like Brandin and Alberico. It's the loss of what might have been that makes it to hard to accept her fate.

Okay, the sex. In the Afterword, Kay states that the novelist Milan Kundera helped him fuel his own ideas for a relationship between "conquered peoples and an unstable sexuality". It's an interesting theme, and one that perhaps psychiatrists have theories on. But the way Kay handled it felt clumsy, new, awkward. No, not the sex; he's written enough of that so that it went smoothly here. But the meaning behind it. He had to attach meaning to every sex scene, every mention of sex, throughout the book, it seemed, in order to further his theme. That part was awkward.

The book starts off with a teenage boy, Devin, who looks younger than he is. He seems to be constantly propositioned or panted after by homosexual men who live under Alberico's rule. He turns them all down. Then a girl who doesn't like him throws himself at him, giving up her virginity in order to protect secrets he finds out anyway--she lives in embarrassment and their relationship is very strained once the truth comes out. Once their team is assembled and they begin phase two of saving their land, all the homosexuals vanish (the brave Tomasso is murdered). It seems that when Devin and friends go to war, the policy becomes Don't Ask, Don't Tell. If you're going to paint a culture as a place where homosexuality is acceptable in public, don't hide it when war shows up. The war's not about sex.

In one of Dianora's flashbacks, it's revealed that she and her brother lived in Tigana's occupied capital, and that he was harassed daily, beaten even, by the occupying soldiers of Brandin. Yes, the Brandin she sleeps with later (Kay never describes their sex, though with her mentality, it should have fit his quality of "broken"). This desperate, hopeless situation leads Dianora and her brother to check into the Incest Motel for a few months before he flees the country.

The worst bit was when the team visited Alienar's castle. Alien? No, quite human. She's a dominatrix, or possibly a switch, and she nabs Devin for a night of twisted fun. Okay, fine, she's all alone in the mountains. But no. Devin has to go open his mouth as he's leaving, and bring up the philosophical implications of her behavior. Is now really the time, Devin? He hurt her feelings and left me wondering what the heck sort of book I'd gotten into. Though by then, I should have known.

On magic: there are wizards in the Palm, and they have power, though it seems to be different than that of the sorcerers. It's never explained, though. I like my magic quantifiable, unless specifically described as unquantifiable. This book had everything so vague that I had no idea what was possible and what wasn't. Some may enjoy that position, but I don't. Magic rarely showed up, too, so I had little time to try and piece its rules together. Lopping off fingers and proximity were key, though. At least for the wizards.

On romance: separated from sex because in all instances of sex in this book, none of it was prompted by love. I begin to believe that Kay doesn't do romance, but his characters do, and that doesn't work for me. The "proper" sort of relationships emerge only at the end of the book, once there is freedom to be had. There's no foreshadowing for them, however. Rather the opposite. One character has a dream, in the middle of the book, of her and a man in a field of flowers beneath the moon. That scene happens, but not with her; she pairs up with someone who suddenly loves her to death and never wants to leave her--except for another night at Alienar's castle. (Um...)  Another pairing pops up out of the blue, implying that a working relationship and a willingness to kill yourself after committing murder are all it takes to spark that loving feeling.

Okay, I think I'm done harping. Don't get me wrong; overall, I did enjoy this book, but again, it was because of the immensely detailed setting and culture, and not so much because of the plot or characters. It made it difficult to get through, but since I'm reading with an eye to style and form, it made the story more interesting.

Fave characters: Alessan's mom (scary!), Catriana, Scelto, Rovigo, Alais. Hmm, this includes only one main character. Ish.

Notes to self: don't leave obvious plot threads hanging out, and communicate with characters re: love. Also, make awesome setting.

Three of five stars.

There. That should cover it.

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